Ackland Art Museum at UNC Chapel Hill receives $25 million gift

Sheldon Peck couldn’t stop smiling when he took the stage for the special event at the Ackland Art Museum on January 25 on Carolina’s campus. He beamed throughout the announcement of the Ackland’s largest gift ever, an $8 million endowment and 134 original Dutch and Flemish drawings – including seven Rembrandts – valued at $17 million.

The Carolina alumnus and orthodontist and his wife, Leena, couldn’t be more pleased to be making this gift, worth $25 million, to his alma mater. With the Peck Collection gift, the Ackland becomes the first public university art museum in the United States to own a collection of drawings by Rembrandt and only the second university art museum in the nation to do so.

“Leena and I are very happy and proud to bestow upon the Ackland Art Museum treasures remarkably preserved for nearly 400 years, from an artistic golden age in Europe,” Peck told the audience, which included Chancellor Carol L. Folt and other University leaders.

He turned to gaze on framed reproductions of eight of the masterworks, mounted behind the podium, recalling the many hours of “pleasure, learning and awe” his family had received from the collection, carefully cultivated during the past 40 years.

“We want this enrichment to continue by gifting these now unattainable great objects to a marvelous university museum, the Ackland, where they can be shared with the community and the world in perpetuity,” Peck said.

In addition to the Rembrandts, the masterworks include nearly 100 17th-century Dutch landscape, genre and figural compositions by artists such as Aelbert Cuyp, Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael, as well as a dozen 17th-century Flemish drawings by masters like Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Paul Bril. A group of 15 18th- and 19th-century Dutch drawings is also part of the collection.

One of the Rembrandt drawings in the collection bears an inscription in the artist’s own handwriting, which until this donation, was the last known drawing with such an inscription remaining in private hands.

“This amazing gift of European Golden Age art treasures – preserved for nearly 400 years and lovingly collected by the Pecks over the past 40 years – delights us today with its timeless beauty and will forever inspire future generations of students, scholars and visitors that come to our historic campus,” Folt said. “These drawings are a remarkable window through which we glimpse past cultures and times through the eyes of masters. We are honored by the inestimable value of the Pecks’ gift because it advances Carolina’s public mission to serve the people of North Carolina and makes the university a destination for people of all ages from around the world for all time.”

Peck first became interested in the Old Masters after attending a seminar at Harvard in 1977. Intrigued by how collectors could identify an unsigned drawing by examining the artwork for certain characteristics, Peck set out to start his own collection with the help of his brother, Harvey, also a Carolina alumnus. After his brother’s death in 1981, Peck continued to collect art with Leena, his wife and a fellow orthodontist. Part of their collection was first exhibited in 1999 at the Ackland.

Beyond the collection, the Pecks’ gift also includes the Peck Collection Endowment Fund and the Sheldon Peck Curatorship Fund. The funds will be used to create the Ackland’s first full-time endowed position – the Sheldon Peck curator of European and American art and curator of the Peck Collection, to conserve, digitize and catalog the collection and to acquire other pre-1950 European and American masterworks.

While the Peck Collection will make the Ackland a “mecca for everyone in the world interested in Dutch and Flemish drawings,” Ackland Director Katie Ziglar told the audience, she is also excited about the collection’s impact on the 10,000 students who visit the museum annually. Ziglar related a story about medical students who practiced their observation and communication skills by describing landscape paintings to each other.

“I can’t wait to hear them analyzing Rembrandt’s Study of a West African Woman or his Canal and Boats with a Distant View of Amsterdam,” she said. “You can be sure it’s going to happen.”

The Ackland plans to exhibit the drawings as well as digitize them to display online and, eventually, arrange a traveling exhibit.

“Leena and I hope you will relish and enjoy this new addition of European artistic achievement – the Peck Collection – now to make its permanent home in the Ackland’s beautiful and growing section of Blue Heaven,” Peck said. “Leena and I love each one of these as part of our family. We know here at the Ackland Museum, these objects are going to get their due.”

Originally published by Susan Hudson, University Gazette, 1.25.17.

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